At first I was putting this off because I wanted to let the story sit for a while, and then I found myself putting it off because I didn’t want it to be over. How can it be over?! I know that Cixin Liu has given me more than I deserved. He gave me a whole extra book after the perfect ending of The Dark Forest! He took me to a time before The Three-Body Problem and then all the way to the end of the universe! He even gave me a sort of wink at the end to reassure me that my secret opinions about the choices of the characters were all correct.
Spoilers everywhere, as this is the last book in a trilogy!
The first few chapters of this book were almost like loosely themed short stories, each one beautifully evocative and strange and standalone, set in the bizarre world of the trilogy where aliens are messing around with the fabric of the world. One of those little stories introduces us to the main character, Cheng Xin, and one never comes up again. But everything is connected, so threads come back in the most surprising ways.
So at first I wondered where he could possibly go after The Dark Forest and its cinematically satisfying ending, but in Death’s End it becomes clear very quickly where it has to go. Every state is temporary. Luo Ji is the perfect Swordholder, but he is also a finite resource. One day he’ll have to look away, or retire, or die. He can’t deter the Trisolarans by his very presence forever. And the minute he looks away everything kicks off again.
I spent a lot of the book feeling bad for Cheng Xin, who finds herself Luo Ji’s replacement. Her choices inevitably backfired, but to Liu’s credit I never got frustrated at her decisions or felt like they were bad decisions. Even when Wade, the worst man in the world, showed up, which inevitably meant that doing something brutal was the right decision, I still sided with Cheng Xin. Even when she refused to broadcast Trisolaris’s location to the universe, a choice which results in the invasion of Earth. Even when she put an end to Wade’s research which may have saved humanity. And she made these gentle, illogical choices over and over again. She’s accompanied on her inhumanly long journey by Ai AA, a sharp young woman from the other side of the Great Ravine who I fell a little bit in love with.
Of course this is nowhere near the only thing going on in the book. We go deeper into space and meet the crew of Blue Space again and see what they’ve become. We learn about dimensional warfare and how the universe used to be. We meet a friendly, sad graveship. We get a glimpse of one of those Dark Forest hunters and their awful, clean warfare. And best of all, we get to meet Sophon, the amoral yet refined robot ambassador from Trisolaris and hands down best character in the book.
The book is just as mad and brilliant as the previous two except perhaps even more extravagantly so (“This euthanasia law was passed just for you!” and “Get to Australia, you bugs!” being notable lines). The brief glimpse into Singer’s odd life, the weapon that collapses space into two dimensions (gorgeously, brutally described). It’s full of gems.
It’s also a bit full of weird gender stuff. Like Luo Ji’s perfect woman Zhuang Yan, Cheng Xin is introduced through Yun Tianming’s weird crush on her and she comes with some strange, Virgin Mary/Guanyin style baggage throughout. She’s juxtaposed against Wade, who’s supremely macho and represents masculinity before the Deterrence Era, when Men Were Men*. His choices are always really grim and violent, and presented as correct (in the short term and sort of medium term). Interestingly, though his choices always seem on the surface like the hard choice, obviously Cheng Xin is the one making the really tough decisions – people may not die, but she faces some pretty hard consequences from the people she represents, as well as the consequences of making the gentle decision in the first place.
Like the other two books, and indeed the whole trilogy, Death’s End doesn’t follow traditional narrative structures. The plot rambles, gets stuck in dead ends, things are forgotten and outgrown. It makes things feel weirdly… not realistic, but like a proper history rather than a story. Liu can do stories too, of course. Yun Tianming’s fairytales are wonderfully strange.
And ugh the end. The end. Liu keeps up that mixture of the epic and the mundane that I’ve loved so much, right up to the very end. Yun Tianming and Cheng Xin are hiding out in a private pocket dimension waiting to see what kind of universe will succeed ours, when it turns out that a load of other aliens have been doing the same thing, and they all get a broadcast asking them please not to, as the cumulative effect of Big Bang tourists has led to the universe lacking enough matter to spawn a new universe, which is just delightfully bureaucratic, a fantastically sensible and earnest way to see in the next universe. And Cheng Xin makes the choice she has been making all along, and it’s the right choice. It puts her decisions into perspective at last, reveals that we are all part of something much bigger and that has existed and will exist without us, and it behoves us to act like it – it makes a difference.
*because men in the peace and plenty of the Deterrence Era have become weirdly feminine because… oh who knows. It’s a weird choice.